[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
[SANET-MG] Tewolde on organic
Tewolde mentions his dealing with corrupt Canadian officials. The world
should recognize that the UN Biodiversity Centre in Montreal is in grave
danger of being converted to a GM public relations mouthpiece. The
Centre should be moved to a safe haven in another country to escape the
corrupt Canadian bureaucracy.
Hungry for an alternative
Tewolde Berhan believes that organic farming is the only real solution
to famine in Africa.Sally J Hall meets the quiet but formidable
Ethiopian who has become a thorn in the side of the GM foods lobby
27 June 2005 the independent
Organic farming is a slow-to-grow, low-yield industry favoured by
middle-class parents who have the time and money to meander the
overpriced aisles of Waitrose, deliberating over wild rocket or white
Wrong, says Tewolde Berhan. He thinks organic farming could be the
solution to Ethiopia's famines. The chief of the country's Environment
Agency has worked his way through academia and government to become one
of the world's most influential voices in the biotechnology field.
Berhan believes that, properly applied, his approach could save the
lives of many of the thousands of Africans who die every day as a result
of hunger and poverty.
He maintains that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) remove control
from local farmers. He speaks for a growing number who believe that
Africa should return to natural, sustainable methods of agriculture
better suited to its people and environment.
Can one man hope to stand against governments and the huge
multinationals? Visiting London, Berhan appears to be a frail - if
nattily dressed - sexagenarian. But our conversation reveals his
determination, intelligence and encyclopedic memory, combining to create
an indomitable force.
Asked why bad harvests seem to have a greater impact on Ethiopia than
its neighbours, he has a simple yet stark response. "It's largely
because of the lack of infrastructure," he says. "The road system in
Ethiopia has doubled in the past 10 years, but is still very poor.
"Ethiopia is still an agrarian society, and there isn't one such country
that hasn't had famines," he adds. "The reasons are clear: some years
you have plenty and others not enough. If you don't have the
technological and financial capacity and the infrastructure to store in
good years, you can't make provision for the bad. People here depend
entirely on the crops they produce in their fields, so when one season
fails, the result is famine."
Born in 1940, Berhan graduated in 1963 from Addis Ababa University and
took a doctorate at the University of Wales in 1969. Later posts as dean
of science at Addis Ababa, keeper of the National Herbarium and director
of the Ethiopian Conservation Strategy Secretariat kept him in touch
with the agricultural needs of Ethiopia's people.
In 1995, he was made director general of the Environmental Protection
Authority of Ethiopia, in effect becoming the country's chief scientist
in agriculture. A strong critic of GMOs, he's a powerful voice in
lobbying on food safety. His most notable triumph came in negotiations
on biosafety in Cartagena, Colombia in 1999. Berhan acted as chief
negotiator for a group of southern hemisphere countries. He helped to
secure an agreement to protect biosafety and biodiversity, while
maintaining respect for the traditional rights of the Third World
population, gained against strong opposition from the European Union and
So why is organic farming the answer? Given low yields, poor soil and
drought, you'd think that industrial farming would help Ethiopia to
maximise production. Not so, Berhan says. "Organic farming deviates
little from the natural environment in supplying nutrients to crops.
We've developed the ability to change things in a big way and, without
considering the consequences, we create disasters. Look at what happened
"Organic farming disturbs nature as little as possible and reduces those
risks. Intensive farming has led to the exacerbation of pests and
diseases, and loss of flavour in food."
These views are at odds with the "conventional" industry. Tony Combes,
the director of corporate affairs for Monsanto UK, a big player in the
GM market, says: "Going organic isn't the way to increase yields. But
then, neither is going totally GM. Farmers need solutions suitable for
local predicaments. This means choosing from a range of options -
organic, conventional and GM. If yields can be increased, that surplus
can be sold."
Berhan is undeterred. He has persuaded the Ethiopian government to let
him demonstrate his ideas in the Axum area of Ethiopia. Old
field-management techniques have been resurrected, while methods new to
the area, like compost-making, have been successful.
Those who think organic farming means low yields will be surprised by
Berhan's evidence. "When well managed, and as fertility builds over
years, organic agriculture isn't inferior in yield. Now, farmers don't
want chemical fertilisers. They say, 'Why should we pay for something we
can get for free?'"
Berhan expresses gratitude for the West's famine-relief efforts, but he
has reservations. "When countries want to help, they may not know how,
so the intention has to be appreciated. But if you go beyond the
intention and begin to dictate terms, it becomes more sinister. In times
of shortage, making food aid available is helpful - for that year. If
you keep making it available, you discourage production."
He believes there are times when food aid can be more about control by
Western governments than assistance. "The feeling is strong that this is
deliberate. I attended a meeting where farmers from the USA were
present. I told them a story I'd read about how rice production in
Liberia was depressed because of cheap imports from the USA. The
American farmers said this was a deliberate policy by the US State
Department to make countries dependent on them for food.
"I began to investigate and discovered that, while the EU has abandoned
its policy of providing food aid, initially sending money so that food
can be bought locally, the US still insists it will only give food in
kind. This makes me feel those farmers were right."
Berhan insists on the necessity of further trials for GM crops, and
believes extreme caution should be used in their growth and trade. His
application for a visa to attend talks in Canada on GM labelling was
turned down earlier this year, suggesting that his influence is feared.
"We were finalising the labelling of grain commodities," he says. "A
compromise had been reached in 2000 for labelling to say, 'This product
may contain GMOs,' but we wanted to toughen it up, to say, 'This product
contains these GMOs,' and to list them."
He also contests that GMOs give higher yield. "This is mainly hype. So
far, there's not one GM crop that produces higher yields per acre than
conventional crops. They offer an economical advantage to farmers as
they can apply herbicide in large doses and not have to worry about
weeds: that's all."
After protests from the media and groups such as Greenpeace, the visa
was granted. Dr Eric Darier, GM campaigner for Greenpeace Canada,
explained why it was so important that Berhan attended. "He is truly one
of the key 'fathers' of the biosafety protocol," Darier says. "It was
convenient for the Canadian government [to refuse the visa], as it
prevented a major critic and opponent of pro-GM Canadian policy from
attending two of the three days of the workshop on liability. Canada has
failed to ratify the biosafety protocol. In view of the fact that the
Canadian government has done everything to undermine the efforts of the
international community to adopt a strict, effective biosafety protocol,
the delays in issuing the visa are evidence of Canada's bad faith."
Is Berhan bitter? Far from it. "I think [the visa refusal] was based on
a mistaken calculation. If anything, it gave the labelling issue higher
visibility. We told the Canadian government: either you accept
multilateral discussions, or the Office for the Commission of Biological
Diversity [based in Montreal], must move to another country." The threat
Berhan's message is compelling - and he is in demand worldwide. In the
past month alone, he has travelled to Austria, the UK, Tunisia and
Norway. He returns to the UK in July to give a talk for the Soil
Association, where he will ask: "Can Organic Farming Feed the World?" He
is a huge force in trying to prove that it can.
The Soil Association will be at the Royal Geographical Society in London
on Tuesday 12 July (0117 987 4586; www.soilassociation.org)
To unsubscribe from SANET-MG:
1- Visit http://lists.sare.org/archives/sanet-mg.html to unsubscribe or;
2- Send a message to <email@example.com> from the address subscribed to the list. Type "unsubscribe sanet-mg" in the body of the message.
Visit the SANET-MG archives at: http://lists.sare.org/archives/sanet-mg.html
For more information on grants and other resources available through the SARE program, please visit http://www.sare.org.